Silver Pacific: A Material History of Photography and its Minerals, 1840-1890


Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowships in the History of Art


History of Art and Visual Culture


Three minerals necessary to most photographic processes—mercury, silver, and gold—were all discovered in present-day California and Nevada within a few years of photography's 1839 invention. The co-existence of these raw materials in one geographic region—together with an abundance of timber, water, light, and, crucially, access to cheap immigrant labor—allowed photography to flourish in the West in the era of Manifest Destiny. Contributing to the emergent field of ecological art history, this project denaturalizes assumptions of photography as a technology that is inorganic, machine-made, and removed from natural conditions. Instead, drawing on the methods of technical art history, it resituates photography within its contingent material contexts and those associated with extractive human labor. This research radically transforms the geographies heretofore associated with "American photography" to consider transpacific networks, particularly between the western United States, Mexico, Chile, and China.